Revisiting The X-Files

I’m not a big TV person, but as it turns out, this is less a result of quality than it is of convenience. I think it’s the broadcast model that really grinds my gears, but in this age of DVRs and Streaming services, I find myself gravitating towards a lot of television shows that are fully available. This includes a lot of discoveries, but I also value the ability to go back and revisit a show I once loved. As you might guess, I’ve been watching a lot of The X-Files lately (the whole series is available and easy-to-mainline on Netflix Instant).

Clocking in a 9 seasons and 200+ episodes, it’s not a series that lends itself to a single blog post, but it’s still worth talking about. There were, of course, two main threads in the series: a continuity of alien/government conspiracy plot-based episodes (though not the first series that attempted such long-term storytelling – Twin Peaks and Wiseguy come to mind – it was still quite ahead of the curve in this respect), and a series of one-off creature of the week type episodes. The continuity episodes established an elaborate mythology that quickly became too dense and nonsensical to me. I’m not sure if that’s just because I missed the occasional episode (and thus had no idea what was going on), or if it was because the overarching conspiracy just made no sense, but the general consensus is that the overall storyline went on a little too long, was drawn out over too many seasons, and just got overly complicated and downright silly in the process.

I was always more interested in the one-off standalone episodes though, and they’re the ones I keep returning to… Some are memorable favorites, some are new discoveries, things I’d never seen before. One thing that strikes me now is that the series really did consist of an eclectic mixture of elements that worked surprisingly well. There are stoic episodes consisting of deadly serious tragic figures, or lighthearted comedic takes on normally staid subjects. There were a lot of horror or science fiction tropes thrown out there, but also more realistic takes that only feinted towards the paranormal (in particular, there were some serial killer episodes that had little to no supernatural elements). The series was one of the few that could scare you like a good horror movie, instill suspense like a Hitchcockian thriller, impart that expansive sense of wonder that’s the hallmark of great science fiction, or just plain make you laugh with expertly crafted comedic episodes.

I haven’t really revisited any of the mythology episodes, but the standalone stuff has held up remarkably well. Monsters, aliens, psychics, freaks, serial killers, urban legends, claustrophobia, disease, the series took on quite a broad set of topics. In addition to the subject matter, the series is notable for its production values. In particular, I think the series had great cinematography. Sure, it sometimes gets a little too dark and the special effects are certainly showing their age, but for a TV show made in the 1990s, it’s remarkable. Most television of that era had a sorta “flat” feel to it, but the X-Files always seemed to have qualities more closely related to film. That’s not particularly rare in contemporary television (especially with the rise of pay cable network television like HBO), but back in the day, watching television that had filmic qualities was quite an eye opener, and as the series progressed, they managed to push boundaries and play with conventions more than most shows of the era. Take, for example, the episode Triangle, which consisted of four continuous shots (there were actually a few more than that, but clever editing made each segment seem continuous, with only commercials breaking up the action).

I had originally planned to list out my favorite episodes that were also somewhat obscure – the ones you don’t hear much about – but perhaps it would be good to quickly revisit the series’ regularly accepted best episodes (and save the obscure ones for their own post). Unlike a lot of series, I find that my favorite episodes are pretty well represented among the typical best-of lists out there, so here they are:

  • Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (Season 3, Episode 20) – Darin Morgan only wrote 5 episodes of the series, but his influence is clearly felt in the entire show. In particular, he brought an offbeat, humorous perspective to a show that could easily have become mired in alienation and despair. To be fair, those were certainly themes of the series, but thanks to writers like Morgan, they were not overbearing themes. This particular episode is one of the rare alien-focused episodes that doesn’t connect with the series’ mythology (and thus, one of the rare alien episodes that I enjoyed!) The episode is structured around a series of flashbacks and interviews, highlighting several different points-of-view and numerous unreliable narrators. This structure is leveraged for all it’s worth, often emphasizing the humor, but also just plain weirdness inherent in the premise. Jose Chung is an author is seeking to write a book about alien abduction and thus he gloms onto Mulder and Scully. It’s an interesting and fun episode.
  • Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Season 3, Episode 4) – Another Darin Morgan penned episode, this one retains much of the goofy humor that Morgan is known for, but also infusing a tragic poignancy in the form of Clyde Bruckman, a psychic who can predict the circumstances of peoples’ death. There’s an interesting serial killer story going on in the background here, but this is really about playing the agents against Bruckman. In particular, I like the way this episode plays with skepticism among Mulder and Scully. Apparently actor Peter Boyle won an Emmy for his role here, and it’s easy to see why. Morgan won an Emmy for writing as well, and again, it’s easy to see why.
  • The Post-Modern Prometheus (Season 5, Episode 5) – This one’s written by series-creator Chris Carter, and represents one of those broadening episodes that tried to break through typical formulas for the show by varying the style considerably. It’s filmed in black and white and features a modern take on the Frankenstein story – a goofy homage to Universal’s famous monster movies, with some comic book tropes thrown in for good measure. It’s a really weird, surprisingly light-hearted episode, with lots of quirky details (in particular, the monster Mutato’s love of Cher music has always stuck with me as a memorable quirky element here). Definitely one of the series more adventurous episodes.
  • Drive (Season 6, Episode 2) – I’m not sure this one would have made the list a few years ago, but because writer Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston were both involved in this episode, many have revisited this one in light of their later work on Breaking Bad (another series I’m trying to catch up on). Gilligan is actually responsible for a lot of great X-Files episodes (including another called Pusher that often makes best-of lists) and you really can see his style in both these episodes and his later work on critical darling Breaking Bad. Gilligan was one of the few to successfully pick up the goofy humor once Darin Morgan left the series, but this particular episode features very little in the way of humor. It’s actually once of the tenser affairs in the series. There’s a government conspiracy angle that fits with the series themes, though it’s still standalone. A lot of tension is ratcheted into the premise by working with a sorta counting-clock mixed with geographical limitations, and the unrelenting pace is matched by a rather dark and depressing ending. There’s a lot of haunting moments here, though I do think that Gilligan tends to rely on certain crutches in his storytelling, particularly with respect to characters not explaining themselves (something I’ve noticed in Breaking Bad as well). In any case, this is a very well crafted, if disturbing, episode.
  • Home (Season 4, episode 2) – Generally considered to be the best of the standalone episodes, this one featured a script by James Wong and Glen Morgan (brother of the aforementioned Darin Morgan). It’s also probably the most graphic and disturbing episode of the series. While many of the series’ horror beats relied on “boo” moments of monsters jumping out of the dark screen, this one relied on a slow burning story concerning a terrifying clan of inbred backwoods hillbillies, calling to mind an entire subgenre of horror that, quite frankly, this episode pretty much outclasses (with maybe one notably exception of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Some of the most terrifying, disquieting moments of the series are contained within, and this is a must watch episode for any horror fan (or fan of the series). It’s actually one that I missed upon its initial run, but which I discovered years later in an eye-opening experience.

There are, of course, lots of other regularly praised episodes, but I’ll save them for a later post, along with some of my personal favorites.

The X-Files has a clear legacy, but few shows that followed have really captured what made this show great. The broader legacy includes all of the shows writers and directors, who’ve gone on to write and direct shows like Lost and Breaking Bad. There have been a few recent heirs to the series, though none has really approached the versatility or depth of the X-Files. Still, shows like Warehouse 13 (a sorta mashup of X-Files and that wacky Friday the 13th series) and Fringe do their best, and even succeed in some limited degrees. At this point, I’m guessing there won’t be another series like The X-Files, and maybe that’s ok.